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My People -- poetry activity

Not a new idea, but a particular use of it that has worked very well. The activity revolves around a close reading of a poem by Langston Hughes, using an eraser…

In this activity participants memorize/study the following short poem by Langston Hughes.

My People

The night is beautiful.

So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful.

So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.

Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Flow:

  • write the poem on a blackboard
  • ask everyone to read it silently
  • ask a few participants to read it aloud
  • have a native speaker read it aloud
  • check for questions about vocabulary
  • Then, erase a bit of the poem. You can start with every instance of “the” for example.
  • Ask a participant to read the poem, inserting the missing words. If they make a mistake, ask them to do that part again. If two people do it with no mistakes, move on.
  • Erase more of the poem. What you choose to erase depends on what you want to work on. At each stage, ask participants to read it. Make sure everyone reads the poem several times.
  • I suggest erasing until the basic terms are left: night, faces; stars, eyes; sun; souls. Then finally erase everything and ask everyone to “read” the poem.
  • Discussion:
    Begin with people’s reactions, maybe with a freewrite, or a go around.

    Then ask questions about the poem to help people grasp and articulate the poem’s structure — for example how it moves from night to stars to the sun and from faces, to eyes, to souls.

    It is also useful to ask people to flesh out the terms — brainstorm characteristics of night, faces, stars, eyes, sun, souls… (The night is…dark, hard to see, frightening, peaceful, secret, etc…)

    In my classes in Japan, it was not immediately apparent to people that the poem was about race. Comparing night to faces did not translate into race. This was interesting both as an opportunity to talk about US history and Langston Hughes’s work, as well as an insight into the universality or transcendence of the poem. Are the people Hughes claims as his own black? In what ways? Does this poem include some kind of subversion of race categories? There is much to explore here.

    Summarize: with an activity like this that can generate many ideas and leads, it seems important to end with an attempt to summarize the discussion: I asked students to tell me what we had done and what they thought/felt about it. I wrote on the board, verbatim,what they told me. We later used this text both for correction practice and to restart discussion about the theme.

    Follow up activity:

    This poem can lead many different directions. Here’s one.

    Our People

    Ask participants to define “our people.” Who are our people? What defines them? Actions? Qualities? Experiences? etc.

    What is beautiful about our people? Are our people beautiful? Is there any beauty that is perceived as ugliness? (As the “blackness” of the night is sometimes seen to be menacing, ignorant, etc…)

    The goal here is not to press people to mimic the poem, substituting their experience for that of Langston Hughes, but to explore their personal connection to the basic themes.

    It would also be a great poem for "writing into" -- see the activity here.

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